Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Words, Words, Words

On the night of June 11 (it began that night but carried on after midnight, to June 12), I found out about a book called The Gospel According to Tolkien by Ralph C. Wood.

I am truly blessed with being aware of that book, and being able to see some sneak previews of it on Google Books, because I now finally think I have a better handle than ever before on what J. R. R. Tolkien knew, and what he tried to do about it, and I think it's giving me a better handle on what I'm for, and what I can do.

To sum up the main points that interested me from that book, as well as my own thoughts on the matter based on those (because once I get inspired to think, sometimes I lose the exact boundaries between the two--hence why I'm not quoting):

While it is the glory of most material creation, including that of animals, simply to be what they are and to do what their instincts tell them to do, the glory of mankind is to make (I would also add knowing, borrowing from Mortimer J. Adler's Aristotle for Everybody).

It is clear from Chapter 1 of Genesis that God took His time making His creation: He could easily have done it instantaneously, but He didn't.  144 hours is a long time for us, but it's all the same to Him.

What's more, God clearly wants us to be sub-creators (as close to "co-creators" as it's possible for mere creatures to be), since a Mass is only valid if it has pure wheat bread and pure grape wine--two things that do not exist in nature but are made by human hands from the wheat and grapes that the Lord provides.

This is certainly not to suggest that God "needs" us in any way, nor that we mere creatures are capable of doing anything "better" than our Maker, only that He chose this of His own free will.  It is a sacrifice on His part, akin to giving us free will as persons, to becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ, and dying on the Cross to save us from sin.  He desires cooperation rather than rivalry.  Hence He provides raw materials and leaves it to us to combine them to make new things that He could have made Himself just as easily as what He actually did make, but that He chose not to.

All of creation began in God's mind as ideas, but He made them with words ("Let there be light", Genesis 1:3).  And in Chapter 2 of Genesis, God leaves it to Adam to name the animals, rather than God telling Adam what they are called--there is cooperation.  The Creator of the entire universe isn't naming His own animals, but is leaving it to one of His creatures, Adam, to do it instead!

Which brings to another point in Wood's book: that making things begins with naming things.  That is, making sounds (and later, strings of visual shapes, letters) that we associate with the things we encounter.

Like God, we can have intellectual ideas, but if they are to leave our minds and so be known to anyone else other than God Himself, we must communicate them to others--and "communication" is related to "community" and "Communion".  We can do this by taking raw materials and making them--and even drawing a design counts, since we need something external to ourselves to do that (even if it's just a patch of sand that we draw on with our fingers, which doesn't last)--but otherwise we use language, and before language is written (akin to drawing), it is oral, spoken.

Only God can bring His ideas into material reality through His Word, Jesus Christ, and through His words, but we can do one or the other--and we can put the ideas into other people's minds, at least, even just by using our words.  And the sounds that make up those words are the only raw materials that we have from our own bodies, that we can recombine into new forms, without needing any tools external to ourselves.

But even though that's the case, language cannot be part of our corporeal makeup--otherwise, there wouldn't be more than one language, and it would never change (which would make it effectively a 1:1 allegory, and therefore superfluous).  The only alternative would be each of us having our own unique language--but that would prevent communication.

And the former would enforce one particular idea on other people, preventing them from co-participating, which is hardly godly.  This makes sense, because God has only one Son by nature, Jesus Christ, so there is no 1:1 comparison between Him and Adam, or between Him and anyone else--nor even between Adam and any of his children.  If it were so, we would be replaceable, and therefore disposable--unloved.  Thank God it isn't so!

Therefore, while our words are partly raw materials from our own bodies, sounds that we produce with our heads and throats, and the various organs therein, there is some aspect to words that is not essential to the corporeal side of our nature.

And here's where I really began to get fascinated, as I thought along these lines.

In order to exist, sound depends on vibrations, which requires something corporeal to vibrate--and so sound depends on the material universe in order to exist.  However, sounds that aren't associated with concepts (sounds that aren't words) therefore "mean" only themselves, and nothing more.  Otherwise, you'd have to consider every sound that exists in nature to be a genuine "language", rather than saying this metaphorically.

I'd already concluded this, but only now was I starting to piece together what I already knew into a greater whole.  Sounds resemble corporeal animals in that regard, whose glory is simply to be what they are.  Even music is simply sound that is orderly, pointing to the divine order that the universe was founded upon.  Plus both the universe and music require time in order to exist, where ideas don't.

But even oral language (the first language) isn't just sound.  It is sound tethered to ideas, to concepts, and those first form in the mind.

God was not compelled to create any of the ideas in His mind, otherwise He would Himself have made things like bread and wine, rather than leaving it to us to do so.  Some of His ideas He did not create: He chose which ones to create and which ones not to.  Likewise, because we have free will, we are not compelled to sub-create, nor even to give voice to, all the ideas that ever enter our minds (and indeed, we shouldn't, since unlike with God, some of our ideas can be terrible).

The point is, ideas relate to the mind, the intellect, and that relates to the spiritual side of ourselves, not the corporeal, as sound does.

...And language unites the two, just as human beings unite body and soul!

In other words, language has a lot to do with what it means to be human.

And things are always better when they are orderly and beautiful, and (as I've known certainly since 2014, if not earlier) orderly and beautiful language, whether spoken or written, is poetry.  (There's no point in making up languages unless others learn what the words mean--then it's not a language but a code--but we can make up our own poems from real languages.)

And language is spoken before it is written, which means there is sound involved--and since music is sound that is arranged in a beautiful order, mirroring the divine order on which the universe is based, musical language, or song, is superior to mere speech, even spoken poetry.  This is why we're taught that "he who chants his prayers prays twice."  God already knows everything, but He made us to acknowledge Him, and He made our voices, and so He wants us to use our voices to pray to Him.  (Likewise, saints in Heaven will only be complete when their bodies join their souls in immortal life, after Judgment Day.)

This I already knew, but Wood's book made clearer to me something else, and this is really what I'm grateful for learning, as it really points to what J. R. R. Tolkien knew, and why he was serving God and Church in doing what he did.

Poetry is orderly and beautiful language in either spoken or written form; when oral, song is an even greater orderliness and beauty than spoken poetry.

But what about the other aspect of language: ideas, concepts, the things we actually communicate?

According to Wood's book, J. R. R. Tolkien noted something else: just as language is oral before it is written, it is also rooted in experience (sensory input) before it is abstracted (conceptual philosophical ideas).

We have plenty of evidence of this, and I was already aware of that, though I wasn't quite aware of its full implications.  Children find it easier to learn a lesson by experience (their own or someone else's, directly or indirectly) than by memorizing and repeating platitudes (just look at Thumper in Bambi with regard to "eating the blossoms and leaving the greens").  Also, we date philosophy back to the Axial Age, to the 500's BC in ancient Greece, whereas mythology has been with us from the beginning.

So another way of putting it is that language is mythological before it is philosophical.

We best understand the orderliness of God's creation through experiencing it; otherwise, why do we have bodies that take in sensory input at all--and that use sounds to communicate, or else external objects?  And if that experience cannot be direct, it can be vicarious, through hearing of someone else's experiences: and what is that but story, whether true or fictional?

Therefore, the best use of language is not only song, but song that communicates story.  Of course the best of all is the prayer of the Mass, which includes readings from the Bible that tell salvation history, but outside of worship there are, for example, folk songs that communicate folk tales.  And so it's a blessing that we still have this even in our modern Western culture that tends to relegate much of our old traditions into the two "ghettoes" of children's entertainment and comedy.

And of course, since we are meant to be sub-creators, cooperating with the Lord, we can actually compose these songs, not just sing them.  Therefore being a folk singer-songwriter is one of the most important jobs, even if they don't have the same role in our culture that traditional oral storytellers did--after, of course, being a cantor and lector in Mass (and in the Byzantine Rite, all Readings are chanted, so lectors have to be able to sing well).

But also, because language is communication, the most superior form of it is when there is back and forth, where at least two people are participating.  God is Three Persons and so never gets lonely, but when we are "alone" God is still with us, hoping we will talk to Him.  (I know I have a long-ingrained bad habit of talking to myself, which I haven't completely gotten over yet--if I could, not only would I pray to God more, but I might also be silent more often, and therefore better able to hear Him speak back to me.)

That being the case, then, the most superior form of language is not just singing stories (especially true stories of salvation history), but one that everyone can co-participate in--which means singing live in front of an audience.  Certainly there is a part for everyone in the Mass.  (Because of this, I welcome comments.)

This relates to what Aristotle said (as Adler wrote about in his book) about teaching being one of the "cooperative arts", merely directing and facilitating what happens naturally (people learning things).  True teaching is cooperative between teacher and student; and since we're all finite, everyone has something to learn and something to teach, whether we're formal teachers and/or students or not.  Indoctrination is talking at people, as though they were blank slates to fill up, and inasmuch as it is depersonalizing, it is not true teaching and so it is not as good as teaching.


Now, given all of the above, the most inferior way to use language would be the opposite of all the above:

Written philosophical prose written entirely by one person with no possibility for anyone to co-participate in it (especially if the letters aren't calligraphic and there are no illustrations, so that it's just plain text).

That's not to say that such language is wrong or evil, just that all other forms are better (and that's part of why I welcome comments, because otherwise this blog would be an example of that).

Even the Bible isn't like that: it has many authors, and it has plenty of room to speak to readers and listeners; also there is poetry in the Bible, including prayers, and it speaks of "singing" frequently; and it tells of salvation history rather than getting overly philosophical.  Many philosophical concepts like transubstantiation and the four causes were adopted after Biblical times, in order to understand the faith, but aren't part of the revealed faith themselves--and Christ Himself didn't get into a lot of technical jargon, but spoke plainly (sometimes in parables, which are stories, even if they are more allegorical than most myths).

Other than God being the "one Author" (which I don't count because that's true of all true, good, and beautiful language, plus God is three Persons and not just one), the only way in which the Bible resembles this most inferior form of language is that it is written down--and even there, the Mass has Bible readings which are read aloud to the parish (so that even those who are illiterate or who can't read in the language can still know their Scriptures).


This makes sense out of J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, both internally and in terms of how he wrote it.

On the one hand, his languages bred the sub-creation, reflecting God's words (and His Word, Jesus Christ) breeding the true creation.

On the other hand, he didn't enforce particular meanings onto his stories and readers, but rather "discovered" them and so puts himself more on the same level as his readers.  Particular sensory "experiences" that entered his mind were usually kept throughout different drafts; what changed was the meaning behind them.

The Lord of the Rings even has the literary conceit that he is simply translating into English texts that date back thousands of years in an extinct language, about real non-human races that existed in mythological times.  In that sense, then, the story is coming through Tolkien to us more than it is coming from Tolkien to us.  And that gives us the freedom to imagine it in our own unique ways, as well as to let it inspire us in different ways--much like the oral storytellers of old did.

This is the exact opposite from how most of us are taught to write today.

On the one hand, I think most novelists tend to want to say a particular thing, and so as they do different drafts they tend to change the particular vicarious sensory experiences to better reflect their ideas, rather than the other way around--which enforces one particular interpretation on people.  (And when the alternative is claimed, all too often it's just slapdash that anyone could do, or showing off--so that there may not even be any true meaning at all, which is bad communication and therefore bad language.)  And they tend not to put themselves on the same level as readers, which maybe turns many readers off.  (I'll never forget two cases in cartoon TV series where someone said "Ha ha, you read books", as if that were something to be ashamed of.)

On the other hand, even when invented languages exist in fiction, as with fantasy fiction, usually the stories come first, and the languages are invented to fit the invented universes, rather than the other way around.  Certainly "fantasy author" is a formal occupation in a way that I don't think "conlanger" is (when I wrote it in this blog entry, a red underline appeared, indicating that the spell checker doesn't even recognize "conlanger" as a real word).  So how often is it that conlangers end up generating invented worlds and therefore invented narratives from their invented languages, especially if they aren't fantasy fiction authors by trade?

But according to this blog entry ( https://notionclubpapers.blogspot.com/2009/11/creative-method-fo-jrr-tolkien.html ), poets do compose their poems that way.

And while that blog entry doesn't mention examples, having read it made me think of Robert Frost's poem "Design", which has an earlier draft called "In White" that I've read (I read both in school in a literature course).  Given my knowledge of both I can definitely vouch for the poet Frost having written that way: he kept the image of the white spider holding up the dead white moth on a white heal-all (a kind of flower that's usually blue), but the significance of it changes between the earlier draft and the final poem into one of greater irony.

And while J. R. R. Tolkien isn't usually thought of when we think of names of poets, Robert Frost certainly is (though probably "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" are better known than "Design").  So if he is typical of poets, then the aforementioned blog entry's claim is correct, and this would explain why J. R. R. Tolkien wrote as he did: he wrote and published poems years before he ever tried his hand at prose, and I think The Hobbit (which he wrote decades later still) may have been his first published novel-length anything, with The Lord of the Rings being the only other example.

In short, J. R. R. Tolkien was NOT a novelist, and wouldn't have considered himself so.  In the first place, he was a poet first--and so it isn't doing justice to his works to skip over the verses therein (plus, if no one did skip them, J. R. R. Tolkien would be the most read poet in the English language).

In the second place, "novel" means "new", and is short for "novel romance".  But The Lord of the Rings is in an older tradition of "old" romance, and "romance" (in the older sense of brave and heroic deeds of self-sacrifice, not merely courtly love between a man and a woman) is the word he would have used for it.

Honestly, the closest thing I can think of to something "new" about The Lord of the Rings is this: since it is an original story, no one was already familiar with it before the mid-1950's, and so J. R. R. Tolkien had to introduce it to his readers gradually.  Hence beginning with hobbits, which didn't originally exist in his invented mythology at all: for while hobbits were unknown to the public before 1937, they are a sort of temporal anomaly, an anachronism in their own world, more closely resembling somewhat more modern English country gentry than the more ancient and pseudo-medieval setting of Middle-earth at large.  Therefore the hobbits' reactions thereto are most akin to the readers' own reactions.  (I daresay The Lord of the Rings could have been shorter if its mythology were that of a real-world nation--in one of his letters, J. R. R. Tolkien himself indicated as much, that it could have been shorter if he could have published The Silmarillion first, as he'd wanted to.)

But again, hobbits weren't originally in his invented mythology: The Hobbit began life as a story that J. R. R. Tolkien didn't even plan to publish (at least not so early, not when it would be his first published novel-length work of prose fiction), but rather made up to entertain his children.  It's a children's story, and therefore a medium that the post-Age of Reason West could better accept for this kind of genre (which probably accounts for The Hobbit's popularity at first but without its being the phenomenon that The Lord of the Rings would become).

It seems to me that, in this day and age, especially if the story isn't set in an existing universe but is new to readers (which a lot of high fantasy is but traditional mythologies were not), the main way to get across this particular genre and have it succeed is to have it be a serious example of the kind of story it is (and one that adults can get something out of)--but to market it as either 1) a children's story (and all that implies for what can and can't happen in it), and/or 2) a comedy (in written form, for example, a satire)--and all that implies for what can and can't happen in it.

(Side note: I've come to notice that a lot of short oral stories these days are either narrative jokes, or else they follow a similar pattern even if they're not funny.  That is, they come to a "punch line" that makes sense out of the rest of the story, that lays out what the story is about, and that is often ironic whether it makes us laugh or not.  I've come to the conclusion that even the Mystery genre is akin to this--and that's new, dating back I think only to the 1800's, partly because detectives are new in history, but perhaps also for this reason.  But myths aren't like that: a lot of the time they aren't resolved by answering a question that tells us what the story is about.  The myth is about itself.)

Indeed, precisely because high fantasy tends to be set in invented universes, I no longer think the genre is as akin to mythology as I used to: "urban fantasy" might be a closer modern subgenre, but even the term "fantasy" suggests that certain supernatural or preternatural entities or events are only meant to be thought of as "real" within the context of the story, and not in the world of the readers.

Therefore I personally think other genres do it better, most especially (when done well) Religious Fiction and Horror (and to a lesser extent--again, when done well--Romance and the Thriller).

Religious Fiction is meant to inspire, and you can't inspire with stories of a God you don't believe exists in the real world (even if your characters and what happens to them are made up); likewise, horror isn't truly scary without the least hint of doubt that maybe such preternatural evil powers might just exist in the real world and might just be after us (and wouldn't be defeated by conventional methods like mere criminals).

Even Romance and the Thriller appeal more to emotions and therefore a visceral experience rather than the intellect.


I've kind of gone off on a tangent, but getting back to the original point: Wood's points about what J. R. R. Tolkien knew and did also make some sense for me in terms of what I might be called to do.

As of now, I'm a cantor at a Byzantine Catholic parish, and starting next month I might be chanting Epistle Readings as well (which is solo work, although it isn't exactly telling stories--outside of the Easter season, when the Readings are from the Acts of the Apostles).

Since perhaps before the turn of the millennium (when I was a teenager), I've enjoyed making up stories, and after the turn of the millennium I've enjoyed doing it in different media.

I first noted my singing gift in late August 2010 (nearly seven years ago now).

I don't know exactly when I first had a love of languages, or a skill in it, but I took my first foreign language course (a Spanish course) in my junior year of high school, so it was in the late 1990's that I was taking Spanish.

As for poetry (outside of song), while I've tried writing poems for years, I first noticed a gift for composing verses probably around 2015, which is certainly when I first put up my poetry blog, "One Verse".

Now, I'm coming up with my own mythos and I want to finish it and publish it in some form: maybe not just one form, but I think the best form might be a song cycle (like on an album that's a recording of a live performance of it), especially since I have a gift for singing and I'm no longer hiding it under a bushel.

Lately I've been noticing etymological connections between words, to where I guess at their histories and exact meanings--and turn out to be right!--and not just with real words in English and foreign languages, but also with J. R. R. Tolkien's invented languages (until recently I was reading The Silmarillion to my friend Eric).  That combined with my having read this article ( http://www.unboundworlds.com/2017/05/names-arent-neutral-david-j-peterson-on-creating-a-fantasy-language/ ) lead me to conclude that I both can (especially now) and ought to invent at least what the author calls "naming languages" for the mythos I'm composing, even if I don't go anywhere near as far as J. R. R. Tolkien did with Quenya and Sindarin.  (I don't plan to: again, language is communication and others need to know what the words mean in order for communication to happen--and I have no interest in writing dictionaries for languages that I made up.)

And of course, I have written poems that I am pleased with and that others have suggested deserve to be published (plus, when I tried writing "first sentences" for fictional prose stories, I ended up writing more poems than I meant to or expected to)--and I've found that I love alliterative poetry, and I would like to write the central myth of my mythos in that form.

In short, I think I'm starting to become ready to tackle these disparate parts.

I don't know if I will go back to college--certainly I don't know about doing so as early as this fall of 2017--but if I do, I'm now seriously considering majoring in languages.  In particular, going for a Bachelor's in Romance Languages (not only to become more advanced in Spanish and French than I already am, but also to learn about how they developed from Latin), and perhaps minoring in Music with an emphasis in Voice (since there are songs in foreign languages like French and Italian as well).

I might change my mind: the Lord certainly knows that I have done that enough times even in short periods of time.  But I'm considering it now.  And I'm enjoying attending the storytelling guild meetings I'm attending, and I want to continue with those.  (And my trumpet practice can only help me with my singing, since both require breathing and lip movement to produce music.)

I haven't changed my mind about McDonald's (though it may be another month and a half before I apply), and I might try to make use of Archways to Opportunity once I've established myself as an employee there (in addition to getting more spiritual guidance from priests and religious), especially since I still don't have a full-time job (but I am fascinated by McDonald's for what it is, not solely as a means to an end), but I do want to be thinking about my future beyond that.


Finally, of course, all words emulate the Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, as identified in the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

Therefore to be a Christian is to be a "philologist" (a word that J. R. R. Tolkien used to refer to himself, usually meaning historical and comparative linguistics--study of languages in context rather than out of context) in the most literal sense: a lover of the Word, of Jesus Christ and of Holy Scripture.

And J. R. R. Tolkien's patron saint was Saint John the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel that bears his name--and Tolkien's first name was John (the "J").


Thank you for spending part of your day with me.  God bless you.

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